How to garden in a changing climate

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By Anna Kramer

Josephine Alad-Ad won’t sit back and let extreme weather ruin her crops. Here’s how the mom of four is working with Oxfam to find solutions.

For lifelong gardener Josephine Alad-Ad, the loss of every plant feels personal.

“It’s painful to see my crops fail. It makes my heart ache,” said Alad-Ad, 47. “I’m one of six children and the only one who likes to garden. … I have always been proud to show my plants to friends.”

Gardening is more than a passion for Alad-Ad—it’s also a way to support her family. But on the island of Mindanao in the Philippines, where Alad-Ad lives, even the best gardeners face uncertain times. Changes in the climate have led to rising temperatures, droughts, floods, and more severe storms. (Mindanao was not affected by the typhoon that devastated the Philippines last November, but many farmers elsewhere lost their harvests.) That’s why Oxfam is working with farmers like Alad-Ad, as well as local partner organizations and governments, to increase awareness of climate change and protect crops from extreme weather.

Battling both droughts and floods

Once a week, Alad-Ad travels to a regional farmers’ market to sell her onions, peppers, squash, tomatoes, and other produce. Her earnings supplement her husband’s income as a farmer and laborer.

“Every time there’s a market day, I put aside a small amount to make sure I always have enough to send my children to school. That’s the most important thing to me,” said Alad-Ad, who has three sons and a daughter.

Lately, though, profits are down. “The weather has become erratic,” she explained. “Last year it rained too much all the time and now this year we are experiencing a drought. I have had 12 batches of onions fail already. That’s equivalent to 44,000 pesos ($990) in lost income.”

It’s not the first such loss she’s experienced. “I remember in 1983 my father’s corn failed due to a long drought that lasted for eight months,” recalled Alad-Ad. “That year we experienced hunger…. It was unusual then to have such a long drought, but it has become more usual now.”

Extreme weather events are becoming more common in the Philippines, the world’s third most at-risk country from natural hazards. The five most devastating typhoons recorded here have occurred since 1990.

Alad-Ad’s family survived one such weather event in 2009, when a severe storm triggered a landslide and flash flood right next to their house. “When we woke up the next morning all of our fruit trees and plants had been washed away,” said Alad-Ad. “[It] was a devastating year … Now every time it rains heavily, we have to leave our home, just in case there is another landslide.”

“It feels good to try to adapt”

To help families make it through crises like these, Oxfam founded several Climate Resiliency Field Schools in central Mindanao. Here, farmers who have been identified as leaders in their communities learn more about climate change, as well as new farming practices, new technologies, and crop diversification. The students cultivate different crops and use their own organic fertilizer on a communal field, giving them a way to try new things without financial risk. They then take this knowledge and apply it to their own land—and, potentially, share it with their neighbors. The project aims to reach about 12,000 farmers in three years.

Reporting from the Philippines by Amy Christian.

“I have started planting other crops, like fruit trees and rubber plants, that don’t need as much water,” said Alad-Ad, who participated as a representative of her community, Sitio Matinao. “I am also trying to do things to prevent my crops from dying, like letting the grass grow over the tomato plants to help retain the water.”

Oxfam is working with local governments in Mindanao to improve long-term support programs for farmers, while helping 42 communities formulate plans to adapt to climate change and reduce their risks from extreme weather.

“It feels good to be doing something to try and improve life here and adapt to the changes we are experiencing,” said Alad-Ad. Of her fellow growers, she added: “I am happy that the women here are standing by their principles, working hard and sending their children to school.”